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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Chapter VII. — On Stars, and Star Lore

page 84

Chapter VII.
On Stars, and Star Lore.

There is an alluring field of research for some of our Maori and Polynesian students in the investigation of star-lore. In all the volumes of literature that Polynesian scholars have collected, the matter dealing with the stars is scanty in the extreme. There are songs without end about the Shining Children of Rangi the Sky-Father, as the stars are called, but little in the way of recorded scientific information. The olden Maori-Polynesians were close observers of the stars, and made use of them as guides in navigation in the Pacific. The Maori was an astronomer in his way, although imaginative astrology entered largely into it, as is the way with primitive peoples. But the subject needs investigators who combine a scientific knowledge of astronomy with a thorough knowledge of Maori and Maori-Polynesian traditions. Hare Hongi (Mr. H. M. Stowell) and the Rev. H. J. Fletcher (an astronomer himself) are two qualified experts who I hope will yet give us books on the subject.

Not being an astronomer, I shall treat only of the stars from their poetic Maori side. As to Kōpu, shining above us, there is not another member of Rangi's bright children who is so interwoven with the fabric of song. There are hundreds of Maori poetical compositions addressed to Kōpu. They are usually laments, beginning with a salutation to or invocation of this planet, generally as morning star. Most Maoris will tell you that Kōpu is the dawn-star, “the first and morning star,” with its forerunner or herald Tariao, who is not quite so bright. page 85 Venus as morning star is also called Kōpu. The Maori, as far as I can gather, could not distinguish between Venus and Jupiter as morning stars. In the Ngapuhi and Waikato country and several other districts, the bright planet in the morning sky is called Tāwera; it is the more southern tribes that call it Kōpu. Venus as evening star in the west is Merémeré-tu-ahiahi — “The Quivering-Star-that-stands-on-high-in-the-evening.” “Yonder shines Kōpu, twinkling at us far on high,” is the beginning of a little song to the morning star which I heard my Maori cruising-mate chant softly to himself as we set out in the raw and early morning hours from our camping grounds on the shores of Rotorua and Rotoiti Lakes, boating from bay to bay. “See yon bright star rising o'er the mountains,” says one elegiac chant; “tis Kōpu the Great; perhaps 'tis thy loved spirit returning to me.” And again, as in this lament for the warrior chief Te Pokiha, of Maketu: “The morning breaks; the trooping stars
One of the Waikato Kingite Flags at Waahi. The canoe represents the Tainui; the rainbow is the symbol of the god Uenuku, and the seven stars above the rainbow are the Pleiades (Matariki).

One of the Waikato Kingite Flags at Waahi. The canoe represents the Tainui; the rainbow is the symbol of the god Uenuku, and the seven stars above the rainbow are the Pleiades (Matariki).

Kiingi Mahuta Tawhiao Potatau Te Whero Whero

page 86 are dimmed; Kōpu alone shines forth; perhaps in yon bright shining one my father lives again.”

The whole heavenly galaxy is enshrined in song and story. There are chants to Rehua, or Sirius—Rehua the Man-eater he is called—to Puanga, or Rigel, in the constellation of Orion; to brilliant Autahi (Canopus), the “Star of the South”—one of the guiding stars by which the Polynesians steered their canoes to New Zealand centuries ago; to Te Ika-mango-roa (“The Long Shark-fish”) as they called the Milky Way; to Maahu-tonga or Te Whai-a-Titipa (the Southern Cross); and to Matariki (the Pleiades), sacred amongst all primitive peoples. The Tahitians say that the Pleiades are the children of the planet Jupiter.

About the Pleiades, the well-schooled old Maori has much to say. To him this benign constellation, “rising through the mellow shade,” is Matariki, or the “little Eyes,” and he regards it with much the same veneration as did the ancient Greek navigators.

“ . . The grey Dawn and the Pleiades before him danced Shedding sweet influence.”

Unlike the weak-eyed pakeha, the Maori star-gazer could discern the seventh star, the “lost Pleiad.” On the curiously-designed headpiece which used to adorn the front page of the Waikato Kingites' newspaper-gazette, the “Paki o Matariki,” all seven stars of the constellation are shown. Waikato, indeed, have a special regard for the Pleiades. It is their sky-guardian; its advent indicates the time when it is necessary to begin preparations for planting the new year's crops—Puanga, or Rigel, in the ascendant is another planting sign—and it is invoked or addressed in many folk-songs and in a kumara-planting chant. Here, also, one recalls the homely old English name of page 87 the constellation, “the Hen and Chickens,” the name which Captain Cook gave to a cluster of high rocky islets on the northern coast of New Zealand.

Yonder is Orion, the grandest star group blazing earthwards, with the imaginary Belt and Dagger. Tautoru the Maori calls it, “the Three Friends,” from the three stars in the Belt; also he sees in the constellation the shape of a pewa or bird-snare, crooked like the carved perches for snaring kaka parrots which we used to see in the Urewera Country, the birding tackle of the old foresters of that wild bush and mountain region. The heliacal rising of Puanga (Rigel) in Orion in the beginning of June marks the opening of the Maori new year.

Higher still, the Milky Way stretches clear across the heavens, a nightly miracle of light. The Maori calls it Te Ika Mango-roa, “The Long Shark-fish,” and again “Te Ika-a-Maui,” or “Maui's Fish,” the ancient Polynesian name for the North Island of New Zealand. “The Long Shark-fish” is probably as descriptive of this wonderful sky-arch as any other name, though not so poetical as the Scandinavian “River of Stars.” The imaginative Maori saw fish forms in the sky just as the classic astrologers did. One of his names for the Southern Cross is “Te Whai-a-Titipa,” which means “Titipa's Stingray,” or, as it is more commonly spelt, stingaree; the pointers are the tail of the star-outlined “whai.” Starry canoes, too, he saw in the night, just as the Greeks saw Argo the Ship. The Waka-a-Tamarereti—“Tamarereti's Canoe”—is a famous allusion in native songs, and one of great antiquity. It is not quite clear which stars are included in this fanciful war-canoe; some say it is the Tail of the Scorpion only, but I am disposed to identify it with Argo; probably the brilliant Canopus, which represents the bow of the Greek page 88 mythological ship, is part of Tama's canoe. Tamarereti, like Titipa, was some far-back Polynesian navigator and explorer; the stories of both are forgotten, but their brave names are enshrined for ever in the names which their hero-worshipping descendants bestowed upon these star-groups, exactly as the Old World ancients emblazoned the names of classic heroes upon their familiar heavens.

A more universal Maori name than Titipa's “Whai” for the Southern Cross is Maahu-tonga. “Maahu of the South” it means; and here again we have the name of a daring South Sea voyager, who though unfurnished with the navigating instruments of modern science, made ocean traverses of thousands of miles in his long sailing canoe centuries before Columbus adventured across the Western Ocean. And the Coalsack at the foot of Maahutonga, looking blacker than ever as “the Cross swings low for the morn,” is “Te Rua o Maahu,” or again “Te Riu o Maahu”; the first means Maahu's Chasm or Pit, into which the ancient ocean pathfinder is supposed to have vanished; the second likens the Coalsack to the deep hold of his canoe.

Lift the eye again zenith-ward from the low-swinging Cross and there is magnificent Canopus, a sun of proportions too huge for the mind adequately to grasp. It is a famous star to Maori-Polynesian; a steering-mark of old when the brown South Sea sailor covered the whole span of the Pacific in his voyagings, from Papua to Hawaii and from Ponape to Easter Island. Autahi, or Atutahi, it is named, and songs sometimes begin with an allusion to its scintillating brilliance; it is the Maori “Star of the South.” About Autahi, an old Maori of the Ngai-Tahu tribe (South Island), skilled in star-lore, once gave me this curious bit of information:

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“Autahi, shining there above us, is a weatherwise star, a foreteller of the winds and storms. Sometimes he twinkles more brightly on one side than the other. You pakehas cannot see that, of course, but our ancestors did, and so can I to-night. When he twinkles or winks very sharply and clearly on one side, and the other side is dimmer, then it is going to blow hard from the side on which the star is flashing brightest. When I see Autahi winking sharply and brightly on the south side, as he frequently does, then I know that a strong southerly wind, often a gale, is coming. This is a sign that never fails.”

I leave astronomers to comment on my sharpeyed Maori mentor's scrap of star wisdom.

It was the same learned man of Ngai-Tahu tribe who gave me this item of local lore about Puanga (Rigel), or as it is called in the southern dialect Puaka:

“We call the group of stars Orion's Belt ‘Nga Tira a Puaka.’ In the beginning of June these stars are eagerly watched for. When Puaka rises out of the ocean it throws out unmistakable flashes. If these flashes are towards the north, it will be a year of plenty on land and in the sea. If they seem to flash towards the south, then it will be a lean year, and food will be scarcer than usual. This, in the tradition of our people, has always been an unfailing omen (tohu) of conditions in the new year.” (Our month of June was the first month in the Maori year.)

The Magellan Clouds were named by the olden Maori Ao-tea and Ao-uri. Ao-tea, meaning “White Cloud,” was the name of the larger and Ao-uri—“Dark Cloud”—that of the smaller of these familiar objects, which have been called “lost fragments of the Milky Way.”

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Fiery Mars was an object carefully observed by the heavens-studying Native, who named him Whetu-Kura, the Red Star. Tariao is spoken of by the Waikato and Rotorua Maori as the forerunner of the dawn; it is often coupled with Kōpu and is probably Mercury, which is so close to the sun that it can only be seen just before sunrise or soon after sunset. As to Saturn, it is probably identical with Parearau, a name which has been interpreted to mean “Head-Wreath,” or “Chaplet of Leaves.” Some see in this a reference to the rings of Saturn, and it is quite possible that a clear-eyed Maori could make out those wonderful circlets. Kōpu and Parearau are mentioned in songs as typical stars of morning and evening:

Ko Parearau i te po,
Ko Kopu i te ao.
(Tis Parearau in the dark
And Kopu in the dawn).

War dance by 120 of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa tribe, Taupo, at the Maori welcome to the present King George V. (then Duke of York), at Rotorua, 1901.

War dance by 120 of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa tribe, Taupo, at the Maori welcome to the present King George V. (then Duke of York), at Rotorua, 1901.